Skip to main content

Full text of "The Milan Decree of A. D. 313: Translation and Comment"

See other formats


Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world by JSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 

Read more about Early Journal Content at 
journal-content . 

JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 


After the battle of the Milvian Bridge, A. D. 312, in which the 
usurper Maxentius lost his life, Constantine the Great and Lici- 
nius remained the sole emperors of the Roman Empire, Constan- 
tine ruling the West, and Licinius the East. In the following 
year, 313, both emperors jointly issued the Decree of Milan, by 
which they gave full religious liberty to the Christians.More than 
any other document emanating from secular authority this De- 
cree has "changed the face of the earth." Constantine was the 
prime mover. Licinius, though at that time not unfriendly to 
the Christians, probably gave his consent chiefly in deference to 
his mighty co-emperor. He always remained a pagan. Later 
on he began to disregard the Decree in the administration of his 
own provinces, and finally started again a persecution of the 
Christians. This and various other causes led to a war between 
the two rulers, which ended in a complete victory for Constan- 

The text of the Milan Decree is preserved by Lactantius, the 
Christian Cicero, in his work, "The Deaths of the Persecutors." 
And there is a Greek translation of it in the "Ecclesiastical His- 
tory" of Bishop Eusebius. This translation, however, seems to 
have been based upon a Latin original, which in some small 
items disagreed from the Latin text of Lactantius. The profes- 
sors of the University of Vienna, who edited Lactantius' writings 
in their "Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiaticorum Latinorum" sup- 
plemented the Decree here and there by slight insertions from 
Eusebius. The English translation given below is made 
from the text so reconstructed, which may be found in the "En- 
chiridion Fontium Historiae Ecclesiasticae" by Conrad Kirch, 
S.J., Nos. 352, 353. 

In A. D. 311 the arch-persecutor Galerius, driven to despair 
by the pains of a horrible disease of which eventually he died, 
had grudgingly permitted the Christians to practice their reli- 
gion. But this Edict of Toleration did not restore confiscated 
property, and worse than this, it did not assure to the Christians 
the use of citizens' rights. The clause "provided they do noth- 



ing contrary to good order" allowed of very unfavorable inter- 
pretations. And the announcement that more detailed directions 
would be given to the magistrates was apt still more to tone down 
expectations. This Edict had been published also in the names 
of Constantine (who had never joined in the persecution) and 
Licinius. Both, too, must have sent out the detailed directions, 
spoken of in the document, though we have no means to ascertain 
whether these were identical in the realms of both. But, how- 
ever this may be, the two emperors by the Decree of Milan ex- 
pressly and unequivocally withdrew and cancelled all the restric- 
tions of religious liberty which either might be deduced from 
Galerius' Edict or were contained in the special "instructions" 
and "communications" dispatched to the magistrates. — The Mi- 
lan Decree was addressed to the imperial governors. 

Translation of the Milan Decree. 

Part I. I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, 
at a propitious juncture meeting in Milan, and taking under con- 
sideration the whole range of public interest and safety, have 
come to the conclusion, that among all matters conducive to the 
public weal those ought to be settled in the very first place, by 
which the reverence due to the Deity is safeguarded (to wit) 
that we give to the Christians as well as to all (others) free per- 
mission to follow the religion which each one chooses, in order 
that whatever Deity there is on the heavenly throne may be pro- 
pitiated and show itself favorable to ourselves and to all that arc 
under our power. 

Hence, listening to the demands of both public welfare and 
sound reason, we have thought it our duty to enact that leave 
shall be refused to no one whatever who has given his heart 
either to the teachings of the Christians or to that (other) kind 
of religion which he himself feels to be the most suitable to him; 
so that the Supreme Divinity, worshipped by us with full free- 
dom, may be able to show to us in all things its wonted favor and 

The Lordship will therefore take notice of our pleasure that 
all the restrictions which are contained in former instructions 
concerning the Christians (super Christianorum nomine) and 


which appear to be very ill advised (sinistra) and out of keeping 
with our clemency, are all and entirely cancelled; and that each 
and everyone desirous to observe the religion of the Christians 
may do so without any fear, and without any disadvantage to 
himself. We thought it our duty to express this to thy Lordship 
in the plainest terms, so that thou knowest we give to the afore- 
said Christians free and unlimited permission to practice their 
religion. Thy Lordship understands, that for the tranquility 
of our times the same freedom as to religion and observance is 
likewise expressly and liberally granted to others, so that every- 
one may enjoy the fullest permission to worship what he chooses. 
We take this step with the intention of preventing the appear- 
ance as if we meant to slight anything deserving of honor or reli- 
gious veneration. 

Part II. As to the Christians we deem it our duty to issue 
still another enactment, (namely) concerning the places (build- 
ings) in which they formerly were accustomed to assemble, and 
about which a well-known rule was laid down in the communica- 
tions sent heretofore to thy Fidelity. Those persons who appear 
to have bought these identical places either from our treasury or 
from anybody else shall restore the same to the Christians with- 
out money and without charging any price, setting aside all de- 
ception and delay. Likewise those who have received them as 
presents shall immediately surrender them to the same Chris- 
tians. If the present owners, however, whether they acquired 
them by purchase or by gift, shall wish to receive anything (as 
compensation) from our bounty, let them apply to our represen- 
tative, so that provision may be made for them also by our clem- 
ency. It xvill be thy duty to see to it that all this property be re- 
turned to the community of the Christians without any procras- 

And since the Christians, as is well known, possessed not 
only those places where they used to meet, but also others which 
belonged not to individuals but to them as corporation, that is to 
the churches, we comprise all these in the aforesaid ordinance 
(of restitution). And thou wilt cause them to be returned with- 
out hesitancy and tvithout litigation, to the same Christians, that 
is, to their corporation and communities; observing, however, 
the above mentioned caution, (to wit) that those who faithful to 


our order restore them without charging any price may expect 
indemnity from our benevolence. 

(Conclusion) . In all these affairs thou shalt be obliged to 
yield to the body of the Christians thy most efficacious assist- 
ance, to the end that our ordinance be carried out as speedily as 
possible, and that at the same time through our clemency care be 
taken of the maintenance of public order. In this way the di- 
vine favor towards us, which as expressed above we have experi- 
enced on the most momentous occasions, will forever prosper our 
future enterprises and the happiness of our people. 

But in order that the tenor of this our gracious rescript may 
come to the knowledge of all, thou shalt have copies of it certified 
by thy signature, posted up everywhere, and shalt promulgate it 
broadcast; so that the firm determination of our clemency may 
not remain in obscurity. 


By the first part of this Decree the emperors made Christi- 
anity another state religion, as those who professed it were de- 
clared to be no longer subject to any loss of civic rights or privi- 
leges, nor to any sort of political disability. Henceforth the fol- 
lowers of Jesus Christ could no longer be molested on account of 
their Creed. They now could plead in the courts, and could ac- 
cept state offices without being obliged to perform the pagan 
ceremonies connected with them. In short, they now possessed in 
full reality all the privileges of Roman citizens. Before the law 
they now stood on the same level as the rest of the population. 
On the other hand, the emperors were careful to emphasize 
strongly and repeatedly that they did not in any way think of 
curtailing the religious liberty and rights of the pagans, who 
still made up, perhaps, nine-tenths of the population. Seeing 
the sentiments of hatred and supreme contempt with which the 
pagans looked upon the Christians, the Edict must have had a 
stunning effect upon the adorers of the old Roman gods, while, 
no doubt, to the despised, persecuted, and hunted Christians it 
must at first have seemed "too good to be true." 

It should be noted how clearly and consistently the unity of 
the Supreme Being is expressed in the Degree. This certainly 


was a blow against the current polytheistic ideas of paganism. 
It was not entirely an innovation, however, since the neo-Pytha- 
goreans and the neo-Platonists had already attempted to consoli- 
date the cult of the many gods and goddesses into something like 
a crude monotheistic system. But farther than the unity of the 
Godhead the authors of the Decree do not proceed. They do not 
declare the God of the Christians the One True God, and they 
prefer to use such indefinite terms as Deity. They expressly re- 
fuse to enter upon that question at all, leaving it to the individual 
to decide for himself "what Deity there is on the heavenly 
throne." Nor did either of the emperors profess himself a 
Christian. Locinius, of course, could not. And as to Constan- 
tine, it seems that although he recognized the favors he had re- 
ceived from the God of the Christians, and realized the unques- 
tionable superiority of the religion of Jesus Christ, he did not 
yet see his duty to embrace that religion. 

While thus Part One of the Decree secures to the Christians 
religious liberty and civic rights, Part Two does away with one 
of the worst consequences of the persecutions. Although the 
great period of church building was yet to come, many Christian 
temples had been erected during the time of peace which pre- 
ceded the fierce persecution by Diocletian. Diocletian had ordered 
these churches to be destroyed or confiscated and put to other 
uses. Many had passed into private hands. All these buildings 
without any exception were now to be restored to the Christian 
communities, no matter how often they might have changed 
hands. With the churches themselves was to go all other prop- 
erty once held by the Christian congregations. The present 
owners were told to apply to the imperial treasury, if they de- 
sired indemnification. The amount they might expect was not 
specified. But this was hardly possible. Nor was it necessary, 
because the treasury officers, in whose hands would practically 
lie the settlement of such cases, all being pagans, were certainly 
inclined to allow rather too much than too little. 

It does not appear from the Decree, whether churches which 
had been destroyed were to be built up at public expense. But 
considering the later zeal of Constantine in raising Christian 
temples we may presume that he had made provision for the re- 
building of churches by other enactments of which we have no 


"positive knowledge. We cannot doubt, either, that church prop- 
erty of any kind which was still under the control of the Fiscus 
now reverted to the Christians. This was at any rate a lesser 
burden for the imperial exchequer, it would seem, than the re- 
demption of those possessions which had passed into private 
ownership. But outside of these two points the Decree is cer 
tainly very definite, leaving absolutely no loophole. Nor does 
the language of the Decree admit of the slightest doubt as to the 
determination of the Caesars to see their will executed. 

The imperial order to restore the alienated church property 
had for the Christians another consequence of far-reaching im- 
portance, in that it recognized the several ecclesiastical units as 
corporations with the right of holding property. 

But while insisting in strong terms upon the restitution of 
church property the Decree stated unmistakably that private 
property lost by the Christians in consequence of persecutions 
did not come under this head. Confiscation of possessions had 
been one of the most dreadful penalties inflicted on the faithful 
Christians, and Constantine knew very well that the estates and 
movables taken from rightful owners amounted to immense 
value. If he did not order their restitution, he must have had 
good reasons. Perhaps, it was the opposition of Licinius that pre- 
vailed on him not to raise this demand. Possibly, too, both em- 
perors were convinced that such a restitution would cause great 
disturbance in the civic body, and that the evil thus brought upon 
the state at large would be much greater than the benefit accru- 
ing to a number of individual Christians. 

The Milan Decree was in the course of time followed up by 
other laws calculated to remove obstacles which stood in the way 
of a wholesome development of the Church. Constantine ex- 
empted the clergy from the duty of accepting municipal offices, 
and from the taxes imposed by Roman Law upon unmarried per- 
sons. He enjoined the sanctification of the Sunday, and gave 
expressly to the churches the right of acquiring property by tes- 
tament. He provided for military chaplains ; each legion was to 
have a certain number of clerics and a large tent to serve as 
church in the camp. He promulgated laws for the protection of 
women, children, and slaves, though in these points he did not 
venture to go so far as the moral law of the Church demands. 


In A. D. 321 he indeed ordered the restitution of confiscated pri- 
vate property of individual Christians. (Sozomenos, Ecclesi- 
astical History, Book I, Chap. 8) . But this order may have ap- 
plied to some particular provinces only, or it may have been 
limited to losses suffered during the persecution of Licinius. An 
investigation on this point is beyond the scope of the present 

Rev. Francis S. Betten, S.J. 
St. Ignatius College, 

Cleveland, Ohio.